Waterford 3-12 (21) Cork 3-16 (25)

Believe. If you were to believe everything you read – and as a loyal reader of The Onion, I don’t – then believing in yourself is all that is needed to secure success. Imagine that you found yourself standing over a sliothar in the last minute of a rain-sodden county final. You’ve been awarded a 21 metre free after being fouled by the other teams full-forward – what was he doing back in his own half, the stupid oaf? Standing on the line are the cream of the fighting Uruk-Hai, ready to do Saruman’s bidding by firing a volley of arrows into the brave warrior of Gondor and, more importantly, keeping the ball out of the net. As you lift that ball, all you need to do is believe and you’ll be chaired into the boozer to get a pint of yer only man.

Unfortunately in the real world, belief is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for success. If it were, Waterford would have bulldozed all over Cork. I believed that we were going to win. To me, everything pointed to a Waterford victory. The Déise had been put through the rollercoaster of the two matches against Limerick while Cork had received less resistance from Seanie McMahon-less Clare than the Americans had from Saddam Hussein. Cork heads were the size of hot air balloons (as opposed to their usual beach ball dimensions), all on the back of obliterating the Banners powder puff forwards, and were just waiting to be pricked by the experienced defending champions. Most importantly of all, it felt right. History has the happy knack of being made all the time, and History was knocking on our door demanding that we make a bit of our own for once.

Once again the build-up in the Gentle County was pretty low key. Perhaps the lesson of 1998, when we thought we only had to turn up to win the Munster Cup – who the effin’ hell are Clare? – have been learned. Or maybe there’s a blasé it’s-only-the-Munster-Cup attitude abroad in Waterford. It’s also possible that the backdoor has blunted the apocalyptic nature of the Munster final. Whatever it was, there didn’t seem to be that much hype attached to the game, which is surely a good thing since it both demonstrates a sense of comfort with Waterford supping regularly at the top table and defeat isn’t likely to lead to the sky turning black with Déisigh hurling themselves off tall buildings. Just a couple of the myriad benefits derived from events of June 30 last year.

Arriving at Thurles later than usual for reasons too tedious to go into here (not that tedium has ever stopped me blathering on before), the first shock of the day awaited me on my far left in the Kilinnin End. Incidentally, note the pecking order in Munster hurling. Tipperary have possession of the Killinan End, Cork always get the Town End terrace and everyone else has to fit in around them. So while we occupied the Town End twice in the previous three weeks, we were evicted to make room for the Confederate/Korean/Hapsburg flag waving Cork hordes. This isn’t a problem, it’s the done thing. What was surprising and annoying was the density of red flags in the Waterford terrace. Conspiracy theorists have had a field day with explanations for the 70/30 split of Waterford/Cork fans in an area that should have been entirely taken up with fellow Deckies. Supposedly Frank Murphy had weaved a typically sorcerous spell to ensure Cork got a fat slice of tickets in that end – note that Frank Murphy is to blame for absolutely everything that is wrong with the GAA, so even if he had nothing to do with it, it’s still his fault. Another theory, so devious that the perpetrator must be twirling their moustaches with glee, speculates that greedy Waterford clubs flogged their precious Munster final tickets wholesale to Rebels with more money than sense (that would be all of them then). My idea is rather more prosaic than those masterpieces of villainy. Waterford is overrun with Corkonians. Guards, teachers, nurses, doctors, thoroughfare sanitation maintenance engineers – you name a profession in Waterford, you’ll find some Cork person who loves our nations largest county so much that they leave it at the first available opportunity and move east. It’s infuriating, but happily the persuasive powers of County Waterford are such that the next generation casts off the boyo genes and embraces the one true path. I should know, I had one of them sitting beside me throughout the match.

Enough with the (off) colour piece and on with the match. Although not before I observe how calm I felt before as the ball was thrown in. In our third Munster final in six years, it was easy to forget the misery of the 1980’s. It’s stating the obvious, but long may it continue. Waterford started with a very strong breeze to their backs and it’s equally obvious to state that a healthy lead needed to be accumulated by half time. Not conceding a goal in the first half was probably a good plan, and while that might sound like stating the obvious – again – it wasn’t that preposterous an aspiration when the Cork backs to going to have to work very hard to get the ball into the full-forward line with the wind against them. Unfortunately Waterford proceeded to give Cork an absolute gift. With Waterford already two points to the good, Cork gained possession under the New Stand and the ball was gently lobbed in the direction of the goal. The Waterford back division watched it bounce then inexplicably let it bounce again. Tom Feeney and Stephen Brenner then compounded the gaff by now proceeding to both charge for the same ball. Setanta O hAilpin beat both of them to punch and was able to calmly bat the ball into the empty net.

Waterford’s reaction to this toothache of a goal was commendable and for twenty-five minutes they hurled with tremendous élan. Waterford were not getting as much possession as they should have for a team with such a stiff breeze in their favour, a state of affairs that would become more understandable in the second half, but what they were getting was being put to good use. There were very few wides in that first half and it wouldn’t be until the last few minutes of the half that a real dud of a wide was struck. In the meantime, Waterford racked up 1-6 to 0-1, the 1 being a tremendous effort by John Mullane. A ball from the midfield arrived in the full-forward line covered in icicles; it was certainly too cold to handle for the Cork backs to handle and Mullane pounced, wriggling his way into a shooting position and lashing such a strike past Donal Óg Cusack that the aforementioned Cork boyo (my dad) was moved to observe that he was surprised it wasn’t drilled straight through the back of the terrace. Waterford built the lead up to seven points and things were looking good.

The match was lost in the next thirteen minutes, the five before half-time and the eight after. Cork slashing a five point half-time lead into nothingness only eight minutes into the second half was obviously a bit of a bummer, as the burly Cork half-backs bludgeoned their way through the now-vulnerable Waterford backs. One particularly demoralising effort saw Tom Kenny dispossess Andy Maloney, effortlessly sprint away from the leaden-footed quasi-Waterfordian and stroke the ball between the sticks. Fantastic stuff, and enough to send the Reds on my right (not the good, Liverpool supporting type) into paroxysms of joy. But a match report has to provide some unique insight if it’s going to be any use and my tenuous-but-insanely-brilliant observation for the 2003 Munster final is that the game was lost in the last five minutes of the first half. Content as I was with the seven point lead, real happiness was predicated on the assumption that we’d knock over two or three more unanswered points to leave Cork with a deficit that would force them to go for goals right from the start of the second half. Instead, for reasons that the mists of time have rendered opaque to human comprehension (i.e. I’ve forgotten) Cork outscored us by four points to one in that period. So when John Gardiner’s 65 saw Cork take the lead a mere twelve minutes into the second half, Waterford were badly in need of a hero.

The hero emerged in the heretofore unheroic personage of John Mullane. So unheroic indeed that when Paul Flynn teed up a free about 30 metres from goal, all Cork minds were so focussed on turning the goal line into Fort Knox that no one kept an eye on the bullet headed ginger loitering casually on the edge of the parallelogram. And the other half is a ginger, so suppress those anti-redhead thoughts right now. Flynners took the outrageously audacious option of tapping the free to the unmarked Mullane, too audacious for your correspondent who was rooting around in his bag for his camera when Mullane received the ball. Pirouetting onto his strong side like Katrina Witt, he smashed yet another unstoppable shot to the Cork net.

Cork haven’t won 46 Munster title for nothing though. A man in the pub told me that Frank Murphy paid for at least thirty-five of them – allegedly. Cork came right back at us with two points from Ben O’Connor, including one ludicrously prodigious over the shoulder effort, then Alan Browne pounced to put Cork a goal ahead. We were running on fumes at this stage. Eoin Kelly was having a ‘mare, one chance going a-begging when he failed to pick the ball off the ground when the nearest Corkman to him was in the stands. Ken McGrath was hurling oceans of ball but he seemed to have left his shooting caman back in Rice Park. Paul Flynn kept his head even if he wasn’t the force he was in previous games. Through it all though, John Mullane was determined to try and beat Cork single-handedly. Played into acres of space by Dave Bennett, you just knew he was going to score a goal, deftly arrowing the ball into a fist-sized space of the corner of the net that he probably picked out as soon as he saw the posts.

It was at this point that John Mullane gave his two-fingered salute to the Cork terrace. Much has been written online about this incident, with a lot of battle hardened GAA types suddenly expressing the hope that someone would please think about the children. Personally speaking, it wasn’t the smartest thing to do and he probably wishes he hadn’t. But when I saw it later on that night on the telly it made me laugh, and that’s good enough for me.

Sadly his hurling efforts weren’t good enough to account for Cork. Joe Deane added a third goal soon afterwards and they got four points clear for the first time. At this stage, Waterford suddenly remembered how to score points and the gap was trimmed to two as the game edged towards injury time. For all the quality of Cork’s play and the fact that they had been resoundingly the better team, a moment right on the stroke of the thirty-fifth minute encapsulated how close Waterford came to stealing this one. The ball broke on Cork’s 65 to Paul O’Brien. He spotted Ken McGrath and tried to play him into the clear. He screwed up the attempted ground pass and Cork broke away to stretch the lead to three points. But but but . . . if he had succeeded in putting Ken away, Ken would have had forty yards of space to gallop into. The nature of the play up to this point would have meant not only was a goal a likelihood but a goddamn certainty. But it wasn’t to be. Cork added the insurance score right at the death and Munster title slipped away from the Déise grasp.

Ah, it hurt. Right up to that moment between O’Brien and McGrath, I had been convinced we’d snatch the win. I had the belief, you see. And despite Cork’s manifest superiority, we would have deserved it. Cork should be battering us out the gate, so had we gotten that late goal Cork would have had no one to blame but themselves. It didn’t happen though, showing that belief isn’t always enough. Still, there’s always the back door, and seeing as how everyone seems to think that winning in the Munster championship is disadvantage, perhaps it’s going to be our turn to turn defeat into victory.

Waterford: Stephen Brenner, Brian Greene, Tom Feeney, Declan Prendergast, James Murray, Fergal Hartley (Alan Kirwan), Eoin Murphy, Tony Browne (capt, 0-1; Peter Queally), Dave Bennett (0-4, 0-2 frees), Eoin Kelly (0-1;Paul O’Brien), Ken McGrath, Andy Moloney (Seamus Prendergast), John Mullane (3-1), Paul Flynn (0-4, 0-1 free), Eoin McGrath (0-1; Michael Walsh)

Cork: Donal Og Cusack, Wayne Sherlock, Paul Mulcahy, Diarmuid O’Sullivan (Mark Prendergast), Tom Kenny (0-1), Ronan Curran, Sean Og O hAilpin, John Gardiner (0-4, 0-3 frees), Michael O’Connell (Jerry O’Connor), Ben O’Connor (0-4, 0-1 sideline cut), Niall McCarthy (0-2), Timmy McCarthy, Setanta O hAilpin (1-0), Joe Deane (1-4, 0-2 frees), Alan Browne (capt., 1-1)

HT: Waterford 1-9 Cork 1-4

Referee: Pat O’Connor (Limerick)